Pre-Camp Q&A with Mike Johnson

Offensive Coordinator Mike Johnson goes in-depth with BRO, discussing the offense, the Pistol, the change in the offensive approach from last season, the passing game, how his players plug into it all, and more...

BRO: I know when you got here you really challenged your guys, especially the receivers group. First of all, I hear it didn't go over very well with some of them, but the results obviously are starting to show a little bit. How do you think they've been through that process?

MJ: I'm definitely proud of the way they've worked. They've worked hard as a group. Everyone on the offensive side of the ball I think has dedicated themselves and worked hard. The thing we said to the offensive group was, ‘Before we can change anything, before we can get better as a football team, we have to change our work ethic' and when we changed the work ethic, once they decide to work hard and want to be good, then the coaches step in. Once the coaches step in and teach the fundamentals and technique, then you get the player you want. But the one thing that a coach can't control is a player's work ethic and then his willingness to want to be good.

BRO: In those meetings you had, not who, but what was the weirdest reaction you got, that maybe made you think this guy is really out there and just floating around?

MJ: I never think anything is strange in a wide receiver's room. I've been in a number of those and you find that wide receivers are different. Wide receivers, DBs, those guys are different. They come with cockiness, they come with egos, they come with all those different things. They're narcissistic. They're different individuals. You're going to have to be able to manage a number of different personalities and mindsets, so it didn't really bother me at all. I know what to expect in that room.

The one thing we had to change, though, is we had to change how we worked. Our expectations had to rise and increase. We had to say, dropped balls are unacceptable. You know, not running the right routes are unacceptable. Missing blocks outside because you just refuse to do it, those things are just unacceptable. So, our standard had to increase, and we tried to change from a spring standpoint, we tried to change the mindset, first in how we worked and then all those things we just talked about. That I think we did that in the 15 days.

Now, we didn't get as good as I would have liked in the spring with the scheme and the executing of the play and those things. But now that the work ethic is right, you know, now that they've bought in, because that is the biggest sign of buy-in, how hard you work when no one is around, they've done that. And I'm extremely proud of the way they worked. Now we can take these schemes and things like that and put them in position to make the plays that they're supposed to make. And I told everyone on the offensive team, if anyone comes back to training camp out of shape, I'm going to put you on the side. I'm not going to coach you. And I've seen the bodies. I've seen the offensive linemen, the receivers, the running backs … they look good. They've been working hard in the weight room and on the field running and throwing routes.

It's time to get better from a scheme standpoint and start putting some things together where we gain the confidence we need in the next month to step into that first game without fear, without hesitation, and execute the way we're capable of executing.

BRO: OK, so take me through your group individually. That first practice, I mean, you have a lot of guys … still looking for the consistent go-to playmakers, but you have a lot of options, a lot of intriguing options. Going in, who are the top three, the top six?

MJ: I don't have a top six. What I'm doing now is preparing, going through our entire offense, and what I'm doing is making sure that with the things that I ask them to do, I put the guys in the right place to do it, and the one thing that I've noticed from being around our guys is we have a lot of flexibility. We have a lot of guys who can do a lot of things well. What I'm going to do is make sure these guys are working on the things that they do well, and not ask them to do something that they don't.

(Here, he opens a large binder) These right here are all of our personnel groupings and you see how (Cory) Harkey is here, (Anthony) Barr is here, Rosario is here (in one personnel group); now you have Harkey, (Taylor) Embree, (Nelson) Rosario, (Randall) Carroll (in another group); now you come down here you have (Ricky) Marvray, Embree, Rosario, Carroll (in another group). So, there is a lot of flexibility and personnel groupings to get people into the positions I need them to be in to make that play go right. That is how I'm going to use that group. I have a lot of players that can do things.

BRO: Uh, Mike, watch a little tape this summer? That took some work right there …

MJ: But that is what we're doing. So, when I want to get Pony Bravo into the game, and I want (Damien) Thigpen to do something, I know how to get him into the game. If I want to go Barr, get him in the game, then I can do something to get him into the game. If I want to get Taylor Embree in the game, I can get that done. It's all about the personnel groupings and making sure I get them in the right positions to make plays.

And, for me in training camp, it's not necessarily about the defense. It's gaining the confidence in what we do and making sure we do things with the proper timing and the proper tempo and executing the play that is called the right way. We're going to do things, we're going to do things in walk-throughs … excuse me, run-throughs, we don't do walk-throughs anymore. We're going to have run-throughs, we're going to do things in team periods. When they're working on kickoffs over there, we're going to have our offense over here working on timing.

Now it's time to execute. So now we're working on making sure that the timing on the things that we're doing is where it needs to be.

BRO: So, really, it's not a top six. The personnel groups are player-based and not position-based … Randall or Ricky or Nelson is going to be on the field because he needs to be for a particular play.

MJ: I've got maybe six to eight wide receivers, you know, counting Thigpen and those guys in that group, six to eight wide receivers. I've got three or four running backs. I've got three or four tight ends. I've got a lot of flexibility to change and maneuver and put guys in positions and not ask guys to do things that they don't do well. And that is where the thing is for me – that's the chess match. So when I put together a game plan, during the week, when we get to a hotel on Friday night, everyone is going to understand their role and how they fit and that is how we do it. Then there is going to be a couple of guys who are going to be in every personnel group that have to play well for us and, you know, those guys will determine themselves, they'll decide who they are in training camp.

That's what it's all about – not asking guys to do what they can't do. That's half the battle. I know who Randall Carroll is and I know what he can do well and what he can't do well. What he does well, he has to do well for us. Nelson Rosario, same way. Then you think about Taylor Embree. I have Shaq Evans. I've got Ricky Marvray. I've got Josh Smith. I've got Thigpen, I've got Barr. I've got Fauria. I've got a lot of weapons. I've got a lot of things to play with. It's just about us stepping up to the plate and playing to our potential.

And then the quarterback doesn't have to be Joe Namath, doesn't have the Dan Marino. He just has to be able to get the ball to these guys and allow them to do what they're going to do. That's it. Doesn't have to be the best point guard in the league, just has to be a guy that can distribute.

BRO: When you get to camp, knowing where you are right now, from the first practice then you're pretty much flying. You've already got a lot of your evaluations plugged into particular situations and plays. All of them …

MJ: We're off and rolling. We're going from Day One. Day One, we're hitting the ground running. You know, we're working on tempo, we're working on execution, because we have a good base to work from. Now it's time to get the right mindset, to develop the right mental toughness to go into the season and be able to handle adversity and all those different type things that happen when you go into a season.

BRO: Was that the most important thing you got out of the spring, just learning guys, how they fit and how you can use them at their best?

MJ: That's a huge part. I had to see those guys move, I had to see them handle some of the situations I put them in, and now I have a good feel for those guys and I know what to put them in and what not to. The other thing was to change the mindset, change the way we practice, change the tempo of practice and change how we work. I think those things were accomplished. You can tell by the way they worked in the summer. We gave them a roadmap on what to do from a throwing standpoint, so I'm looking forward to seeing that in camp, but I think we've gotten better there. And, you know, so I think we're going to be better just pitching and catching. I think we're going to be able to run the ball, but now we have to put all the things together.

BRO: The passing component last year was … it was not good. Do you need to know how that didn't come together in order to fix it? It was a combination of things, obviously, but quarterback, receiver, protection issues?

MJ: I think it was a combination of a lot of things and I don't want to go into last year because I wasn't here and it's not fair for me to say or to criticize or to go into that. But obviously it wasn't up to UCLA standards. Going into the spring, I knew all the plays, but I didn't know how it all fit. Now I have a good feel I think of how we're going to make it go. I have a real good grasp in my mind of what we want to do and I think we have to improve from a protection standpoint from the spring and make sure we target the right guys in all of our protection deals. I think we have a good bit of improvement that we have to make in training camp from that standpoint. It was not up to par in the spring.

But now that I have a better feel for what we're doing, I think all of those things will get corrected and I think we'll be on the right people. You won't see as many guys running around in our backfield as you did in the spring. But I think we're on the right track and I think I have a good grasp now of what we want to do and how we want to make it go.

BRO: There was some question to Rick at the Pac-12 media day about the fairness of the quarterback competition, but it seems to me that is going to be more up to Richard (Brehaut) and Kevin (Prince) than it is Rick. I mean, Richard has to be on par with Kevin in terms of getting into plays, knowing and handling the offense, things like that, before you talk about fair …

MJ: Well, Richard, I saw him in the spring and he got a chance to showcase what he can do, and I'm excited to see Kevin. In spring he was injured. He's healthy now and I'm excited to see who can grasp the team, who can take the team, grab it by the hand and let's go. See who they respond to and see which guy is going to come out. I'm excited to see him and Richard is a guy that has been right there with him the last couple of years. We're going to make a decision probably a week or two into the camp once we get going, and then we've got to get a guy ready to go to Houston.

BRO: No taking it into game week, then. You get six, seven practices to make an impression …

MJ: We're going to say the first two weeks, probably. The first two weeks of training camp. Then you have to go. You have to make a decision. I'm sure Rick and I will talk and we'll make a decision on who that guy is and go with it.

BRO: Physically, Kevin has been cleared. But you don't hold anything back, given the history?

MJ: No, he's going. He's going. We're off and running. He's been cleared, he's 100 percent. You have to see how he responds to the work and see how his body handles that, and then you make an assessment from there. But as of right now, we're going. He's going to make every practice and we'll go from there and see what he does.

BRO: How much of a feel do you have for Kevin, going into camp?

MJ: I watched him here, I watched him the year before. I think he did some good things. I think he's a very talented athlete, I think he's physically talented. He's big, he's strong, can run, can do a lot of good things. But from the entire quarterback position, where we have to make the biggest improvement, is from the mental standpoint – decision making, not turning the ball over, making the proper decision to get us in the proper runs when we run the ball. Those are the things where I think we have to get better as a group, but I think both of those guys are physically good enough.

BRO: The decision making part …

MJ: A lot of that we have to kind of control what we give them. Sometimes you can give a guy too much, and then you kind of set yourself up. We have to make sure we're smart in what we ask them to do. Then not put them and the team in harm's way by giving them too much if they're not ready to handle that. That's something that we'll decide as we go forward, what they can handle and what they can't.

BRO: Is it fair to say, though, that this offense, in terms of a play call, is easier now? It's not like a West Coast deal where you're spitting out a dozen words …

MJ: It's manageable. It's definitely something that a quarterback at the collegiate level should be able to handle. We don't have the 15- or 20-word play call – we don't have the ‘deuce- left-jam-fake-left-throwback-seam-478-F-flat-hook …' We don't have that one (laughing).

BRO: You're going to get Brett Hundley back at some point. Do you want him to have a package for this game, package for that game?

MJ: We have to see how he progresses. I think that you have to see how he handles everything when we go to training camp. In the spring, he started off well but then he hit that wall and it became too much and then you saw him tentative, you saw him hold back a little bit. That wasn't fair to him. We asked him to do way too many things. But we have to see how he comes back, how he handles the stuff we ask him to do. But if he's ready, you play him some. If he's not, you're mindful of that.

BRO: In terms of having three or four plays that he can run for a game, have him run that play and come off the field. That is something that was talked about …

MJ: That's something we'll talk about as a staff as we go forward. As of right now, we're going to just let him go through training camp and then see what he looks like. But we're going to condense his package regardless and not ask him to run the entire book. He's going to have a package that he works on and he executes and he knows inside and out that allows him to play fast, regardless if he plays or not in a game. He's going to have that anyway.

BRO: How about Devin Lucien? You've got guys stacked up outside, but as we talked about, none of them have really established themselves as a huge presence. Can he work his way through that field?

MJ: One thing I tell all these guys all the time, I have a fair but not equal policy. If he comes onto that field and he warrants playing time and warrants that kind of respect, then he plays. I could care less if he is a freshman. I could care less if he is a senior. No one is entitled to play just because they're a senior. So, that's all predicated on how he handles all the installs, the volume that we give him and see if he can handle it. But I know that he's a talented guy, I know he's worked hard and done some good things on the field over the summer from what I've heard and I'm looking forward to seeing him.

BRO: The F-back position, what have you learned about making use of that position? You've got two pretty good players there …

MJ: Well, we're going to figure that out. Like I said, I have a pretty good grasp of what those guys do well. When we put them in the game we're going to ask them to do these five things, whatever they are. We're going to ask this guy to do these three things, whatever they are. You saw the personnel groupings. We have the flexibility to do a lot with that F-back position.

The offense that I ran in the NFL, the one that I've been with with Norv Turner, the F is the person that drives the offense. That's the variable. That's the one that is the three-wide person that comes in, then you have a guy like Barr that comes in and can be the three-wide and a run guy, then you have a guy like Fauria that can be a blocker and a flat guy or a quick out guy, go vertical some.

You have flexibility at that position to do a number of things, and we're only going to ask those guys to do what they do well. But that's why the F position is so valuable, because I can jump in and out of those personnel groupings any time and the play is going to dictate who is in the game, and the assignment that we're asking them to do. I'm not going to ask Thigpen to be the eighth blocker in protection.

BRO: Good call there on Thigpen. Game day, have you figured out where everyone is yet? You will be upstairs …

MJ: Still up in the air. But I think I will be upstairs. I think from where I stand right now, Jim Mastro will be on the field. Bob Palcic will be on the field with the offensive line. Then I may have an intern with me upstairs, a G.A. upstairs with me. That hasn't been finalized, but I think I'll be upstairs, I think Jim will be down, and Bob will be down. That's as far as we know. Still have to finalize a couple more things.

BRO: Hearing all of those names again and knowing what they can do and how to use them correctly, you must be really looking forward to spitting out those plays and watching it go …

MJ: I am. I'm excited about the possibility, because if we play up to our potential I think we can be a good offensive football team, I do. And it's all about us gaining the right confidence early, that's why the Houston game for us is the only thing we talk about. That's the only game I'm watching because there is nothing else more important than that. If we live up to the standard and the standard is trying to be your best each and every day, trying to do the right things each and every play, and if we do that and we don't turn the ball over, we have a chance to be a very good football team.

BRO: Got to block them a little, too …

MJ: Yeah, and that's all part of the assignment deal. If we execute and we do the things necessary from a fundamental and technique standpoint, that includes blocking, throwing and catching … it's a given to me that we're going to catch the ball. I'm not even thinking about dropped balls – we cannot drop as many balls as we dropped last year. We know that. We understand that. If you touch it, you have to catch it. That's the rule. I don't care if it's at your ankles. I don't care if it's over your head. If you touch it you catch it. And it's my job as a wide receiver coach and handling all the guys who touch it, to make sure that I put them through all those drills – low balls, high balls, behind, anything else. When you put your hands on that ball, you catch it. I don't think about fumbles. I don't think about interceptions. I don't think about dropped balls. You have to make the routine play on any good football team.

There are certain times you have to make great catches. There are other times you have to break two or three tackles to make a great run. But when I get a hole, I need to hit it. When I get a wide open guy I need to throw it and I need to catch it. Those things are the given for me. If we can't do that, then I'm disillusioned. That's the farther thing from my mind. We are going to do the necessary things to win.

I think we're capable and now we just have to go through training camp and develop our swagger and come out and go stick a flag in that field, plant our feet and go.

BRO: In terms of the changes up front, the tweaks in the blocking schemes, how much of a difference can you see that making in the end result? How will that help the linemen, particularly the guys that don't have a lot of playing experience?

MJ: I think that's the biggest job for me, as a coordinator. I don't think calling the plays is going to be that difficult. I think I'll do a decent job with that. I think the biggest job for me as a coordinator this year is making sure that I put our offensive line in the best situation to be successful. That is the most important thing. I think if I do that correctly and not ask them to do things they're not capable of doing, I think they'll be fine.

BRO: You've got some guys who have played, have experience. But you have some other guys that haven't played that much if at all, so ...

MJ: Well, the one thing I noticed when I was watching tape, there was one guy at Stanford that was pretty good. He was No. 92 (Sione Fua). I don't even know his name. He was pretty good. Well, I don't need to ask a guy who is not capable of blocking that guy to block him all day one on one. So, that's one example of what I'm talking about. If we have a guy that we can't handle one on one or he has overmatched us, then I need to provide the necessary help, make sure that we're sliding to him if we need to, make sure that we're not putting that lineman in a situation that sets us up for failure, where he gets beat four or five times in a game and gives up three sacks.

All of those things have to be thought about throughout the week. So, when we go into a game, we're confident and we don't have guys running around in our backfield. That's part of the challenge. And it's not just calling plays. We can just draw them up and call them anyway – it looks good up on that board right there. But, you know, you've got to provide the necessary help where you need it. That's part of developing the proper protection scheme each week. That's huge.

BRO: Like you said, that can be one of your bigger issues, because you have a lot of guys that can do things with the football in their hands.

MJ: But if you can't get it off, it doesn't matter. … But from where I came from in the NFL, I've been in situations where we've had 50 or 60 protections in a playbook, so I have a lot to choose from and you've got to make sure that they know what they're doing and you choose the right ones. There are a lot of ways to skin that cat.

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